Lighting Labor's Fire | The Nation


Lighting Labor's Fire

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2. Start Memberships With Other 'Flavors'

About the Author

Barbara Ehrenreich
Barbara Ehrenreich is the author, most recently, of Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has...
Thomas Geoghegan
Thomas Geoghegan, a Chicago-based labor lawyer, has contributed articles on politics and the labor movement since 2000...

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Bringing back a strong and healthy labor movement is everybody’s job—but to do it, we’ll have to change our corporate and political models as well.

The GOP declares Keynesianism dead, but it hasn’t really been tried. The great economist would have us do much more than “prime the pump” to pull the country out of this morass.

We suggest other forms of individual memberships for those who want a connection to the labor movement but do not want or need legal services for themselves. One possibility would be ACLU-type membership. The idea here is to have an ACLU within the existing AFL-CIO, ideally closely tied to the National Workrights Institute in Princeton, New Jersey, which is itself a spinoff of the ACLU. That is, set up an organization, member-based, that is very much like the ACLU, except that its focus would be on civil liberties at work. The issues: cameras in the bathrooms, personnel files, post-9/11 screening, drug testing, undocumented workers, racial profiling, etc. Outsiders can join. Existing union members can check a box that earmarks part of their dues to go to "labor's ACLU."

In addition, we suggest an international-solidarity membership, open to existing members as well as interested outsiders. Dues could help support strikes and organizing drives in other parts of the world. One great thing that a member would receive is a monthly magazine (perhaps by e-mail), with country-by-country reports as to what the labor movement is doing in that country. Some may scoff at a mere magazine, but Seattle showed that there are some people, especially young people, who want some sense of connectedness with labor movements around the world.

3. Do a Few Tammany-Type Things for the Poor

More than just sign up individuals, labor has to raise its profile, especially among the working poor. Long ago the unions thrived among the poor and worked alongside the old big-city Democratic political machines. Now those machines are gone, but the unions could pick up and carry out some of their useful services, albeit updated. We don't just mean that labor should keep reaching out to community groups. They should deliver community services.

For example: the earned-income tax credit. According to a study in 2000 by Katherin Ross Phillips of the Urban Institute, half of those eligible for the EITC fail to get their money. They don't know, or don't submit the tax returns, or are too wary to go to H&R Block, which ends up taking much of the refund. The old urban machines would have put this money in the hands of people. Why not the unions? With help from the rest of us, the unions could scour up foundation money, train people and set up storefront offices to help people fill out the forms. The working poor would come to see the labor movement as a concrete source of help, even in cases where organizing is still only a distant possibility: "The union helped get me my money."

We note, though, as Cesar Chavez often said, that the unions should not give away these services for free. Make people pay a nominal fee and give them individual memberships. Then bring them out on Election Day.

4. Start Ten 'Labor Colleges' in Ten Cities

Here is a sobering thought: What can labor give a twentysomething? In Britain, where it is relatively easy to join a union, the Trades Union Congress has found it difficult to persuade many young people that unions have much to offer. A national health program already exists. And with people switching jobs as often as they do in America, what does a wage increase, even of 2 percent or so, mean in a job you may leave in a few months? So some in British unions propose tying union membership to training: from basic literacy on up.

Imagine if labor, not-for-profits and various schools joined together to create programs in the basic and not-so-basic skills. Imagine if, as part of one's union membership, dues allowed people to invest in themselves. To have such programs in the ten biggest urban areas could mean reaching in effect well over half of the work force. Especially at a time when unions can't raise wages very much, it helps to connect a union membership (in the minds of nonunion America) with a lifetime program of learning--from, say, welding to organizing and public speaking.

All the above ideas are intended to make labor more appealing, to build up our dwindling individual union memberships. But once there are hundreds of thousands of individual members, how should labor use its new political clout?

5. Make California, by Referendum,
The Prototype of 'Europe'

We assume for now there is no chance that Congress will enact any law prohibiting striker replacement or the like. But there is a side door to labor law reform: a referendum in California. Go to the people, or at least 25 percent of the nation's people. Seek a state law (which could not be pre-empted by federal law) that changes the state law or common-law rule of employment "at will," requiring instead that no one can be fired, union or nonunion, except for "just cause." Labor has always (unwisely, it seems) resisted such a law, because this kind of protection is supposed to be, at least in America, a benefit of union membership. But in most European countries, this is a right that belongs to everyone, and it is one of the reasons unions remain relatively strong there. It takes away the fear factor. People can put on a union button without fear of being fired.

Such a law, since it extends rights to everyone, is likely to be very popular. Once in place, it need only spread to three or four other big states to become, in effect, the law of the land. Then the entire atmosphere or climate for organizing will change, and people can at least debate joining unions without risking their jobs.

6. Use Soft Money to Organize

The McCain-Feingold campaign-finance reform law has perhaps freed up for organizing some of the soft money that labor customarily gives to the Democratic Party. It is important for labor and progressive candidates everywhere to understand: Money for organizing is a kind of "soft money" contribution. Let's assume that the AFL-CIO statistic is right for white male voters: If they are nonunion, they voted 69 percent for Bush, 35 percent for Gore. If union, the ratio almost flips: 59 percent for Gore, 35 for Bush. Put another way, union organizing "flips" more votes, at least among white males, than any number of television commercials. Progressive politicians should demand such contributions when labor knocks on their door. "If you want my support, organize in my district." Likewise, unions should concentrate their organizing in swing districts and states.

Any organizing, while it lasts, creates a blip, bringing more nonmembers and quasi members into the fold for a while.

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